Would you eat a unicorn’s poop? That’s just one of the many bizarre moments experienced by the player throughout the course of DeathSpank, an Xbox Live Arcade release from Ron Gilbert (creator of the Monkey Island series, which I adore) and Hothead Games, the company that developed the Penny Arcade games.
Unsurprisingly, it is that type of humor that is the main selling point of DeathSpank, which was marketed as Monkey Island meets Diablo. In the end, this is a remarkably accurate description of the game, though this doesn’t always work in its favor. When DeathSpank is at its best, it’s riotously enjoyable, but there’s always some sort of issue that crops up at the most inopportune times, not unlike a sudden and poorly designed escort quest. Yep, this game has one of those too.
So, what exactly does this bold claim of “Monkey Island meets Diablo” really mean? Essentially, DeathSpank plays like a traditional hack and slash game, with both the humor and puzzle solving of a LucasArts adventure game. The main thing to note here is that both of these elements are scaled back and simplified from what you might expect based on the pedigree of similar games in those genres.
For instance, leveling up is reduced to choosing a card after you level up, which bestows upon the character a boost to ranged attack, melee attack, and so on. Similarly, you won’t be scratching your head to solve any puzzles; while you can combine inventory items and use items on environmental objects, it’s hard to call any of the quests here “puzzles.”
Still, the game plays well enough for what it is. DeathSpank controls fairly well, although it takes some time to get used to melee attacking, which can feel imprecise. It’s often difficult to tell depth in the game thanks to some areas where colors tend to blend together, and there’s a general sense of busyness on the screen that often obstructs the player’s view. This can lead to some frustrating deaths, especially if you happen to get attacked by something hiding behind a tree, since objects don’t become transparent if you walk behind them.
Some of the annoyances are more severe. The game’s inventory system is mostly useless, and it takes a lot of fun out of the loot finding. If you get new equipment, there’s no easy way to compare it to your current equipment, forcing you to move through the already cluttered inventory interface to manually compare stats. You also won’t get a nice damage-per-second statistic on a weapon, though weapons often don’t have elemental properties anyway.
All this combines to make a looting experience that just isn’t very fun. I found myself ticking the box that enabled me to auto-equip the best items simply because it was such a pain to do it myself. Imagine trying to play Diablo like that and you’ll have an idea of the effect on the game’s fun factor.
The game’s open-world map is also set up in a rather frustrating way. It’s completely reliant on paths that often wind around in some strange ways, making it easy to get lost even using your map. Even the game’s main town, which is really small, can be hard to navigate thanks to some fences, cliffs, and invisible walls that block your attempts to take the most direct route from an outhouse (which are used for fast travel) and a quest giver.
Yet this game is not all negative; it has one glowing positive that makes everything worthwhile, and that’s the game’s humor. If you’re familiar with Ron Gilbert, you already know this style of humor, and it’s largely what you can expect in DeathSpank. Sure, the game isn’t as funny as the Monkey Island games, but it’s far more creatively humorous than the vast majority of releases that claim to be funny.
It’s incredibly silly humor: you’ll find enemies called swamp donkeys, which are introduced with a long diatribe about how the two characters simply can’t stand swamp donkeys. You’ll also be asked to help people with some pretty ridiculous tasks, and the largest source of enjoyment in the game is letting yourself get lost in this incredibly bizarre world, being carried along on your journey by the sheer insanity of the characters you meet. The humor bleeds into even the item names, like the “Fire Axe II: Fire Harder.”
Aside from the issues mentioned above regarding the graphics and interface, the game looks great. While animation isn’t perfectly smooth, the game’s style greatly adds to the overall sense of strangeness. Walking into the Enchanted Forest is like walking into a childhood dream (or an acid trip, but, whatever, same thing).
Similarly, the sound design in the game is great. The game departs from traditional medieval tripe for its music, instead going in a much more fun direction, both in terms of composition and instrumentation. And while DeathSpank himself might sound a bit too much like Patrick Warburton’s illegitimate lovechild, the voice acting is always solid and entertaining.
What DeathSpank accomplishes is ultimately good. Through all of its failings shines a sort of game that we don’t get to see often, one that is unrepentantly silly and genuinely funny. But at the same time, it’s not entirely competent as a gameplay experience, and there’s so much room for improvement that it’s hard to exit the experience without feeling more than a tinge of disappointment. Though Gilbert has already departed Hothead Games, there may be a future for DeathSpank, and if that future comes to pass, it may surpass the “good” game offered here and give us something truly great.
Everything about the game looks nice, but that presentation isn't always functional, leading to some unnecessary headaches.
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It's traditional hack and slash to a fault. It captures a lot of what we love about the genre, but flubs a few things up in the process.
The musical approach is enjoyable yet repetitive, and the voice acting is appropriate given the game's humor.
With quite a list of side quests, you may be tempted to sink about fifteen hours into this fifteen dollar game. But if you want, you can finish in half that time.
Judged on its humor alone, DeathSpank is a great game. However, some major problems often mar the gameplay, making it more fun to laugh with than it is to play.